Mary and Martha—Faithful Sisters, Devoted Disciples

Oh, that I were an artist! My first canvas would free two of my biblical sisters from a much-used characterization and portray Mary and Martha as John saw them—witnessing “the glory of God” as Jesus calls their brother Lazarus from his grave to live again! These were women of great faith who accepted and learned of Jesus while he dwelt among them.

The teacher who first introduced me to Mary and Martha clearly favored Mary over her sister. She obviously felt Mary was the spiritual one; Martha, the practical one. Since that time I have heard similar comparisons whenever the New Testament account is told. This image remained with me until experience and more careful study provided additional insight.

Mary and Martha were real women, not illustrations in a parable. They lived with their brother, Lazarus, in Bethany, a small village within easy walking distance of the old city of Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives. John records that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” and wept at Lazarus’ death. (John 11:5, 32–36.)

We read of Mary and Martha on only three occasions, each of which reveals different facets of their characters.

Together, They Learned of the Savior

We are first introduced to Mary and Martha in the book of Luke. The story related there has probably produced the feeling that somehow Martha is not the spiritual equal of her sister Mary. Jesus and his disciples have come to Judea from Capernaum. “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.” (Luke 10:38.) We are not told whether Jesus knew the people in this particular household. Perhaps he was already acquainted with them, because there seems to be some familiarity as Jesus and Martha communicate with each other.

For years I have mistakenly assumed that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha worked in the kitchen. Not so. In verse 39 Luke carefully explains that Martha “had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:39; italics added.) They both sat there to hear the words of eternal life from their Lord. It is appropriate, therefore, that these three appear on the 1987 Relief Society study guide cover which entreats sisters everywhere to “learn of me.” (Matt. 11:29.) Mary and Martha were doing just that, learning of the Savior—together.

But then, that which comes to all of us must have occurred to this trio of friends—they became hungry. It was Martha, the caring hostess, who provided repast for her remarkable visitor. In addition, Martha felt she needed assistance and asked Jesus to ask Mary to help her. Which woman among us, when faced with similar circumstances, has not made a similar plea?

Luke records that “Martha was cumbered about much serving.” (Luke 10:40; italics added.) Obviously these two sisters did not have prior notice of Jesus’ arrival at their home, so they had no chance to prepare a meal. We cannot indict Martha for wanting to serve the best to her Lord. Women throughout the Church are serving the best they have to General Authorities and other visitors who similarly travel to teach the eternal truths of this same Jesus.

The question here is one of priorities. Even special meals can become too complicated if we spend hours frosting the petit fours instead of planning more simply-prepared food. Do we spend more time planning and executing a lavish Sunday dinner for family members than we do studying the scriptures that day? Do we value a perfectly clean home over spending time teaching and loving our children? The story of Mary and Martha, observes Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “reminds every Martha, male and female, that we should not be so occupied with what is routine and temporal that we fail to cherish the opportunities that are unique and spiritual.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 61.)

Jesus’ gentle reproval to Martha is much the same as any loving parent would speak to an upset child: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.” (Luke 10:41.) The footnote clarifies that careful means worried. Martha was indeed concerned about what to serve and how to entertain the Son of God. Perhaps Martha is “Everywoman” in her desire to be hospitable and caring in this situation.

How are we “cumbered” today? Are household tasks a hindrance and burdensome? Are we disorganized, frustrated, overstressed? Are we victims of crises, reacting to pressures of time and circumstance rather than acting to control them? And, conversely, are we so involved with learning or outside interests that we do not honor our domestic responsibilities? There are times when the work must be done. But it can be done with a positive attitude and without martyrlike complaining.

There is a principle to be learned here. Obviously, Martha felt anxiety. Was she placing more emphasis on the food than on the person she would serve? Elder Neal A. Maxwell observes:

“The conversation that night was eternal; the calories were not.

“When we get filled with Martha-like anxiety, it usually stems from failure to establish proper priorities.” (Deposition of a Disciple, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 69.)

In fact, the Lord has counseled all of us to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” (D&C 58:27.) When determining the causes we will engage in, we need to weigh our values against our priorities. This will help us better judge what is important in our lives. Elder Maxwell concludes, “Basically, if we are properly motivated and are proper managers of our time, there is a time and season for various good causes in our lives. The contributing emphasis, of course, must be upon keeping the commandments and being effective in our family life.” (Maxwell, p. 69.)

In Luke 10:42, Jesus speaks of one thing being needful: “And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” What in our own lives have we chosen that is good, lasting, and eternal? Have we separated the trivial from the important? Do we really understand the differences between “nice to know,” “want to know,” and “need to know”? In an age when information virtually explodes around us, are we developing the skills to sort out what we will choose to take into our hearts and minds, and what we will discard? Have we developed an eternal perspective so that “the good part” is clearly visible now?

In a sense, Jesus is teaching a concept that could well be applied to many situations that require us to judge how to use a limited amount of time and energy. It is quite possible, for example, for a teacher to spend more time and effort on the table centerpiece and posters than on preparing the meat of a lesson. But is that choosing “the good part”—particularly in view of the inspired mandate we have received from our prophets to study the scriptures and improve our gospel scholarship?

Two Distinct Personalities, One Ideal

On another occasion both Mary and Martha ministered to Jesus’ temporal needs. These “former-day Saints” were dedicated homemakers. Relief Society General President Barbara Winder states that “every woman is a homemaker. … There is an art to being a homemaker. For ourselves and for our families, it is important that we have a sanctuary—a place of refuge away from the world where we feel comfortable and where, if others come, they, too, can feel comfortable.” (Ensign, March 1986, p. 20.)

Jesus apparently felt comfortable in this home in Bethany. He chose to be there the last week of his mortal existence. It seems that both Mary and Martha prepared the food this time; Martha again served Jesus, and also Lazarus, who sat at the table with him. It was customary in those days to care for the feet of travelers, and since Jesus had journeyed from the wilderness, Mary saw to his comfort by anointing his feet with a costly ointment. (See John 12:3.)

Just as Mary and Martha had distinct personalities, so are each of us individuals with our own strengths, weaknesses, and talents. As with Mary and Martha, it is often easy for us to judge others, and even ourselves, in unfair light. We need to learn the lesson these two sisters teach us: we need balance in our lives. While we are to perform the necessary tasks, we need also to seek the “good part” and learn the truths of the gospel.

The Faith of Martha

A few months before this incident, we find Mary and Martha at a time of crisis: their brother Lazarus was dead. Jesus had gone with his disciples “beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized.” (John 10:40.) After Lazarus’s sisters sent word to Jesus, it was Martha who went out to meet him, while Mary “sat still in the house.” (John 11:20.) Herein our biblical sisters teach us the need to turn to our Savior for help in our own personal crises.

Here are two sisters with distinct personalities, yet both possess great faith in their Lord. Each of them separately declares the same words to Jesus: “If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” (John 11:21, 32.) But it is Martha who expresses her faith that Jesus can yet restore life to her brother: “But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” (John 11:22.) After Jesus describes the hope of the Resurrection, Martha, who most certainly is not “cumbered” on this occasion, firmly declares her testimony as she proclaims with conviction, “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” (John 11:27.)

Her faith is well placed, as attested by the astonishing experience that follows. We can only imagine the glorious scene as the grieving of those assembled to mourn the death of Lazarus turns to rejoicing when Lazarus comes forth from his grave. (See John 11:40–44.)

This, in fact, is the picture I wish I could paint. What a glorious occasion to set to canvas! It is this scene, more than any other, which most clearly illustrates the faith Mary and Martha had in the Lord.

There is a fundamental risk involved in labeling someone based upon one or two incidents in their lives. Martha has been called “practical” and Mary “spiritual.” In reality, both were practical, both were spiritual. Both loved and served Jesus; all three scriptural accounts illustrate this. Should not each of us desire to be somewhat like both of them?

Seasons of Life Dictate Priorities

On more than one occasion I have heard teachers list priorities for Latter-day Saint women in any number of variations: Church, family, work, self; family, self, Church, work; work, family, Church, self.

These are helpful, but only in a broad, general context. In real life, each day brings its own requirements. At one time we may have heavy Church responsibilities, and other facets of our lives, even our families, may temporarily take supportive roles until pressure eases. At other times, family responsibilities may require all our attention, to the exclusion of everything else. Those who must provide financial support for themselves and their families necessarily find that Church work and time for one’s self fall behind pressing needs at home. At still other times our “self” must come first as we refill our own spiritual and emotional reserves. We certainly cannot fill someone else’s cup if our own is empty. We may envision our daily tasks as a kind of seesaw, where one day something is “up” in importance and another day it is “down.”

The point is that when we judge someone as we have perhaps judged Mary and Martha, we have forgotten that strengthening the individual and the family, serving in Church callings, and providing for temporal needs are all part of gospel living. When deciding which aspect should receive emphasis at certain seasons of life, sisters would do well to seek the Spirit as a guide.

“If the decision is right, they will feel at peace. That is the key. If they have made the wrong decisions, they will tend to feel troubled.” (Ensign, Mar. 1986, p. 21.) Troubled is, in fact, the very word that Jesus uses to describe Martha on that occasion when she may have been confused regarding her own priorities. (See Luke 10:41.)

Perhaps Mary and Martha show us that, by learning more of the scriptures and prophets and by developing a sensitivity and desire to serve others, we can strengthen ourselves and others in a balanced way. As we make Jesus Christ the focal point of our lives as they did, we will indeed have “chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away.”

[illustration] “Mary and Martha,” by Del Parson

[illustration] “Jesus Raising Lazarus from the Dead,” by Carl Bloch. Original at the Chapel of Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark. Used by permission of the Frederiksborgmuseum.

Evelyn T. Marshall serves as chairman of the Relief Society curriculum writing committee. She is a member of the Salt Lake Valley View Ninth Ward.